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July 15, 2018

Hide your father away – priest holes in the 16th Century

Metal History

The priest hole at Harvington House.

If you’ve read The Castle of Fire and Fable, you discover that Corbin’s library at Briarwood holds a secret – a priest hole used for concealing Catholic priests who were persecuted following harsh laws during Elizabeth I’s reign.

Like many of the details in my books, priest holes were a real detail present in many castles and stately homes across England. Elizabeth I ascended the throne in 1558, following the death of the Catholic Bloody Mary. Elizabeth needed to restore order and demonstrate her father’s Church of England would take no shit, so she made it illegal to practice the Catholic faith, and clergy found performing Catholic service could be charged with high treason.

Much of the nobility were old Catholic families (Anglicanism only having been made the state religion by Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII). They wished to continue to take the sacrament and attend Catholic mass, so they would hold secret mass in their homes. A whole network of safe houses sprung up across England – like a great sacred underground railroad – marked by secret symbols like wax discs bearing a cross and a lamb (Lamb of God – and no, not the band). Priests were smuggled into the country as visiting teachers or family members, and these “recusants” continued to perform the sacrament in secret.

But no one messes with Bessy and her anti-Catholic decrees. The crown established a force of “priest-hunters” (pursuivants) to ferret out these traitorous priests. They could conduct surprise raids on homes suspected of harboring a priest. The charge for hiding a priest was also high treason, and families could be tortured and punished accordingly. As for the priest, they could expect to spend some time in the state torture chamber before execution.

Families started installing ‘priest holes’ to conceal both the priests and their vestments and other sacred objects if their homes were searched by priest hunters. Priest holes might be hidden in attics, in hinged stairs under staircases (as in this picture in Harvington Hall), behind chimneys, in water closets, or behind panelling or bookshelves. One large stately home – Hinlip Hall – had as many as 12 holes scattered throughout the house.

Most priest holes were small – barely large enough to fit a man inside. Some were larger, hiding spaces used as churches or meeting places for Catholics. Sometimes, priests would have to hide inside the holes for days as the priest hunters’ searches grew more thorough. There are stories of priests asphyxiating or starving to death inside their hidey holes.

priest hole

Priest hole at Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk

The architect of priest holes

A Jesuit dude named Nicholas Oren went around the country installing these priest holes in castles and halls from the 1580s. He was known for designing holes that confounded the priest hunters. He designed and installed thousands of priest holes, and is also believed to have masterminded the famous escape of Father John Gerard from the Tower of London in 1597.

He kept the secrets of these families even when he was captured, tortured, and killed on the rack in the Tower of London. It’s believed many of his priest holes are still undiscovered.

Owen was sainted by Pope Paul in 1970, and is now known as the patron saint of illusionists.

More info

Here’s a Pinterest board of Priest Holes

Daily Mail article about the priest holes at Sawston Hall in Cambridgeshire

National Trust list of some of the best-preserved priest holes.

Some decent pictures of priest holes here.

Historians used 3D mapping to discover this priest hole at Coughton Court.